Note: this is just a personal diary of and reflection on a visit I undertook to Guédelon in March 2015. For proper information on the project please see the official website, available either in French or in English.
I had been wanting to visit Guédelon for some time – pretty much since the moment I first heard about it a few years ago. After all, what could be better than a project to build a thirteenth-century castle from scratch? So when the opportunity arose to go there with a small group of friends I grabbed it with both hands.
For me the visit was valuable on two different fronts – first as a tourist experience, and secondly as a research mission: as well as writing novels set in the early thirteenth century (which, as it happens, all have stonemasons lurking around in the background – shall I write one with the masons as the main characters next?) I was also in the final stages of writing a biography of King Louis VIII who reigned in France in the 1220s. And as luck would have it, I was puzzling over a passage in some contemporary texts about a castle Louis repaired, with the accounts of how he did it and how long it took being markedly different in each account. So I was delighted at the thought of consulting some experts in the field.
We arrived at Guédelon on the morning of a surprisingly warm and sunny March day, only the second day of the year on which the site was open to the public. The place was already buzzing with activity, and as we were treated to a personal guided tour by press officer Sarah we were able to start taking everything in.
New for 2015 was an animated film, about five minutes long and in French with English subtitles, which plays on a loop in a barn by the entrance. Don’t skip this if you visit: it’s packed full of information about how the project started and how it has developed so far, which really sets the scene for the rest of your tour.
When you think of castle-building you might think mainly of stonework, but there is a lot more to it than that, as we soon discovered. First we visited the ‘world of wood’, which employs a substantial number of workers in different teams: woodsmen who identify suitable trees, fell them and bring them on to site, preparing them for use, and carpenters who build the lodges and other buildings and also construct the all-important scaffolding and lifting equipment which is used at the site.
All the permanent wooden structures at the castle are made from oak, and I was interested to learn that they use green, rather than seasoned, timber. The reason for this is that seasoned oak is as hard as rock so it is very difficult to work with; instead, once an oak tree is felled the outer sapwood is removed and then beams are fashioned from the darker heartwood pretty much straight away. The heartwood is dense and resistant to decay, so it makes beams which can last for hundreds of years.
Many of the roofs of Guédelon’s buildings are also made of wood, which sadly deprived me of the opportunity to get into an in-depth conversation with anyone about thatching, a skill I developed and practised repeatedly when I worked at Danelaw viking village some years ago. Still, I did learn that the difference between shingles and shakes is that the former is made from sawn wood and the latter from split wood.
Which reminds me that it was during our stop at the main carpenters’ lodge that I encountered the first of the many batches of new vocabulary which I would learn during the day. My French is fairly reasonable for everyday use, but the technical terms here were of a different order, and it was a steep learning curve. Having said that, I was delighted to be shown a besague, a tool which later developed into a weapon – a weapon about which I once wrote what must be one of the world’s most obscure academic research papers. It was nice to be reminded of a word I hadn’t used in years.
Next it was on past the quarry, where most of the stone for the castle is sourced, to the masons’ lodge and a chance to see some work being carried out on different types of stone. The dark sandstone is very hard, meaning that tools need to be sharpened frequently, and it takes about four times as long to work as white limestone. However, it adds strength and durability to the building, and the contrasting colours can be used to add decorative flourishes to windows and arches. Here again there was plenty of vocabulary to be learned, but hey, I’m sure it will come in useful to know the difference between a pitch, and punch and a chisel (a differentiation I probably couldn’t previously have made even in English, never mind French).
In the lodge we were also able to see the technical planning work which goes into the creation of every piece of stone. Plans are drawn out on the tracing floor and made into wooden patterns which can be used either once, for an individual piece, or over again for different pieces which need to be the same shape – spiral staircase steps, for example. Everything is done by geometry: draughtsman and stonemason Clément explained that as long as you have a compass and a ruler, you don’t need a calculator.
Measurements on medieval building sites could vary from location to location, so each master mason would carry a stick marked with the units which would be used on site. At Guédelon these are the inch (in French pouce, which can be translated as either ‘inch’ or ‘thumb’, giving you some idea where the original measurement came from), which in the Middle Ages could be anywhere between 2.4cm and 3.2cm. At Guédelon it’s a handy 2.5cm, which makes other calculations slightly easier. Then there is the palm (3 inches), the span (5 inches), the foot (12 inches) and the toise (6 feet). The official translation for toise in English is ‘fathom’, but that sounds a bit too nautical to me for use on a building site.
The finest piece of stonework which has been created in the castle so far is the window of the chapel, which is now in place up in the tower. The upper reaches of the chapel tower were off-limits to tourists at the time of our visit, but we were hugely privileged to be taken up there by Sarah and Clément for a closer look. I have to admit that this particular window is my favourite part of the whole castle. It was carved in 34 pieces from some 15 tons of white limestone, but it looks as light as a feather as it soars up into the sky, catching the sunlight. I could have looked at it all day, but eventually I was dragged away as we had to move on.
It turns out that the very close look we got at the window is not one which anyone will enjoy once the tower is finished; we were standing on the scaffolding and unfinished wall of the tower, but the actual floor of the chapel is four metres below, so the window will have to be admired from more of a distance in future.
Our tour took us next back down the stairwell of the chapel tower and along an enclosed wall-walk running along the outside of the great hall. In both of these places my 6’6” tall, well-built husband discovered that thirteenth-century castles were not (and apparently still are not!) constructed for the comfort of people his size … I think his head will recover eventually.
The great hall is complete except for the floor surface and the wall decoration, and here you can get a real sense of being in a castle rather than in a building site. The spacious windows let in plenty of light (on a sunny day, anyway), and the window seats look like they would have been very inviting for any thirteenth-century people who had the time to sit down and relax in them. But the roof of the hall is very high and the space is heated by a single fireplace, so we spent some time debating how cold it might get in the winter.
The chamber to one side of the hall is even more complete, down to the hand-made tiles on the floor and the paintings on the walls. Yes: although it’s tempting, when visiting a castle, to think that the bare stonework you see now was all the view afforded to contemporaries, in fact many of the rooms, particularly the more upmarket ones, were lavishly decorated. This room has the air of a comfortable family and private space.
After a very nice lunch in the site restaurant, our next trip was out to the new watermill, in the company of Philippe, one of Guédelon’s longest-serving employees (and certainly the winner, against what looked like some pretty tough competition, of the site’s ‘most impressive beard’ prize). The mill was created here because a group of archaeologists found the remains elsewhere of a real one dating from approximately the same period, and wanted to reconstruct it to find out how it all worked. And where better? This was experimental archaeology at its finest.
Amid a torrent of yet more technical vocabulary (I must remember to try and drop milling into an everyday conversation just so I can use it) we found out from Philippe that having a mill on his land was a good source of revenue for a medieval lord, as he could compel all his tenants to use it and pay him a fee for the privilege, which could in turn be used to finance the continuation of the construction of the castle.
The mechanism looks complicated but in fact is actually quite simple: the water hits the paddles of the water-wheel and turns it; the water-wheel is connected to a gear-wheel; the gear-wheel is connected to the upper of the two millstones which form the quern. Thus as soon as the water hits the paddles, the quern begins to grind and all you have to do is tip the grain into it and stand back. To a thirteenth-century person who had spent a lifetime turning the heavy stones by hand, this must have seemed like absolute magic; it certainly reduced the workload of ‘the daily grind’. As with anything medieval, though, there were hidden dangers: if the force of the water is too great then the quern turns too quickly, creating sparks which can ignite the explosive flour dust in the air. Seeing your mill burn down if you didn’t pay enough attention to it was an occupational hazard in the thirteenth century.
Once Philippe had guided us back through the wood (and it’s a good thing he did or we would have walked round in circles for hours … there’s a reason why so many old stories start with people getting lost in the forest) our party split up for a while. I was fortunate enough to spend an hour with Florian, the site’s master mason, who, as it turns out, is not merely an expert in architecture and construction but also in the history and politics of the region in the thirteenth century and the genealogy of its noble families. We enjoyed a conversation so detailed and obscure that it would probably have bored any normal onlooker into a coma, but I was in medieval nerd heaven, I can tell you.
While we were busy chatting about these things and looking at printouts from some original thirteenth-century French manuscripts, the others managed to complete the tour of the rest of the site, visiting the forge, the dyer’s hut, the tilery, the rope walk and some of the animal pens. I missed out on these this time round, but that’s my excuse to go back for another visit, right?
Finally, as the day wore on, we met up again and basically collapsed in a heap, sitting on a bench and spending our final half hour just looking at the castle while groups of excited schoolchildren headed past us to board their buses back home. Then there was just time for a quick visit to the site shop before it closed. There is an excellent selection of stuff there but unsurprisingly I had eyes only for the books, and ended up buying far too many. In theory, of course, there is no such thing as too many books, but this takes no account of the weight of the bag you have to carry on your international journey home …
In summary: if you can possibly get yourself to Guédelon, then do. It is a one-off experience which you just couldn’t replicate anywhere else. We learned a huge amount during a most enjoyable day there, and everyone we met was lovely, happy to explain to us what they were doing and why. I’m already planning my next trip!
All photos © James Mears.